by Alan Jacques
THE unprecedented increase in social welfare appeals since 2009, which mirrored a similar dramatic increase in the number of claims, placed considerable pressure on the appeals office and impacted adversely on the time taken to process appeals.
That was the response from the Department of Social Protection to criticism in last week’s Limerick Post from Fianna Fáil TD Willie O’Dea over what he described as an “unacceptably high” appeal processing time for social welfare payments.
The waiting time, Deputy O’Dea stated, can have significant financial repercussions for the applicant, putting many at risk of poverty while awaiting the outcome of a decision.
However, according to the Department, appeal receipts increased from an average of 15,000 a year up to 2009 to a peak of 35,500 in 2012, before reducing to 32,800 in 2013, 26,069 in 2014 and 24,475 in 2015. In order to manage the increased workload, significant effort and resources were devoted to reforming the appeals process.
“Additional appeals officers were appointed, an overhaul of the operating model was undertaken and new technology was introduced. Work was undertaken to reduce delays in responding to requests from the Appeals Office.”
This resulted in a marked improvement in appeal processing times. The average time taken to determine an appeal requiring an oral hearing reduced from 52.5 weeks in 2011 to 25.5 weeks in 2015. The average time taken to finalise an appeal decided by way of a summary decision dropped from 25.1 weeks in 2011 to 18.1 weeks in 2015.
However, it must be noted that the social welfare appeals process is quasi-judicial in nature and, as such, is subject to inevitable time lags before appeals can be finalised. The time taken is proportionate to the complexity of many of the issues under appeal, the vast majority of which require a high level of judgement and some of which involve complex legal questions”, the statement explains.